Emile Habiby, Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist (New York: Vantage Press, 1982).
Emile Habiby’s novel is at once a work of humorous social criticism, a tragicomic record of the ironies of national conflict, and a stinging reminder of the pitfalls of political hardheadedness. Habiby lays bare the identity crises of Palestinians inside Israel: the preoccupation with secrets of the past, the cowardice of the collaborator, the fatalism of the defeatist. He goes to the roots of the contradictions of national oppression: Their villages may be erased from the map, they may go underground, but the dispossessed Palestinians will never disappear. Behind the jocularity, Habiby offers sobering political judgments. The Palestinian masses must not forget the deviousness of the Arab leaders or the failures of the Palestinian bourgeoisie. History did not begin and end in 1948. Though there is no returning to conditions prior to the establishment of Israel, Habiby reminds us that the Israelis are the latest in a long line of conquerors of Palestine.
Habiby’s anti-hero, Saeed, is a dim-witted, uncoordinated, cowardly Palestinian Everyman. Saved by a stray mule, he flees the fighting in 1948, finds temporary refuge in Tyre and returns soon after to his hometown of Acre. Once in Israel, he follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes an informer for the Israeli police, taking orders from a Sephardi Jew who, in turn, bows to his Ashkenazi boss. His marriage is arranged by the police, who propose to infiltrate the communists in his bride’s village. Their son takes to arms but disappears with his mother as they flee a police siege. Beaten by Israeli guards and struck by the heroism and kindheartedness of his fida’i cellmate, Saeed finally discovers some dignity in his Palestinian identity. It is too late, however, for him to unite with the mass struggle, and he ends up hovering overhead, disengaged from his compatriots and saved only by a creature from outer space who whisks him into oblivion.
Within the framework of Saeed’s lackluster career as informant and by means of the satirical genre, Habiby weaves the psychological and historical realities of dispossession, exile and statelessness. His themes of Arab identity in the Jewish state, of Palestine as a land of conquest and resistance long before 1948, and of leadership and political accountability can be woven back together with an examination of the political implications of Habiby’s social critique.
Foremost among the psychological dilemmas facing Palestinians under Israeli rule is their transformation into an unwelcome minority in their own land. Through Saeed and his cohorts, Habiby lets us in on the ways Palestinians have adapted to or rejected their subordinate status. The most negative characteristic is fatalism. Saeed is resigned to accepting the worst, “When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank him that it was no worse.” It is the fashion among pessoptimists to keep their heads to the ground, scavenging for pennies dropped or for forgotten hidden treasure, and to hope for “worlds other than ours, and better too.” Collaboration with the enemy is the next best means of survival. The collaborator does his best to obscure his identity. Thus Saeed learns Hebrew, finds comfort in the catacombs of Acre, metamorphoses into a cat, learns to trust no one, and betrays his family.
There is a positive message in the effort to hide and the preoccupation with secrecy, more significant to the village folk and the infiltrators than to Saeed. On three separate occasions, Habiby lists Palestinian villages either destroyed in 1948 or transformed into exclusively Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim. Each tally corresponds to evidence of obstinate Palestinian steadfastness. Saeed and the Israeli governor discover a mother and child infiltrating from Lebanon. The governor asks, “Will they never disappear?” Habiby’s answer is unambiguous: “The farther the woman and child went from where we were…the taller they grew. By the time they merged with the shadows in the sinking sun they had become bigger than the plain of Acre itself.” A similar theme of inherent Palestinian resilience echoes in the subterranean tunnels of Acre where villagers hold a funeral for the man who lived 20 years in a cave and family treasures are left by one generation for the sustenance of the next.
Historical irony is another of Habiby’s favorite themes. Saeed’s old principal, also of the pessoptimist creed, has resigned himself to dispossession, thankful that his situation is not as bad as “when the Crusaders conquered [Acre] after a three-week siege in 1104, [and] slaughtered the people wholesale and confiscated their property.”
Habiby goes a step further and draws upon historical analogues for victory. Remnants of Napoleon’s defeat at Acre still wash on shore, and at ‘Ayn Jalut, now site of a kibbutz, Nazarenes gather to curse the Mongols. Habiby’s political message is double-edged. There is nothing timelessly unique about the contemporary era of rule by foreigners; there are precedents for both conquest and resistance. The defeatism of the pessoptimist is misplaced and the ahistorical “return to beginnings” of the youthful fida’i naive. Saeed’s son Wala’a’s anguish over taking up arms is more believable than the confidence and assurance of Saeed’s cellmate, the King, at Shatta Prison. Habiby seems to be speaking through Yuaad, daughter of Saeed’s first love, when she says, “If [the fida’i] had really learned [from the mistakes of their predecessors], they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” Not only have conditions changed inside Palestine and in the diaspora in 25 years, but “the beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Carmel.”
A corollary to Habiby’s sensitivity to historical context and to particular psychological, social and economic consequences of Israeli rule is his rebuke of Arab elites for their active role in the oppression of the Palestinian masses. Arab princes, intoxicated by Israeli wine, accuse those who urge implementation of United Nations resolutions of treason. The Arab press ceaselessly sounds empty news of false “victories” until there is “nothing but chaos and we can no longer differentiate between them and the wreaths of flowers set on graves.” The elite of Nablus care little who rules them and learn Hebrew to maximize profits. For all his rhetoric, Ahmad Shuqayri never had a word for the Arab workers who remained, “who erected the buildings, paved the roads, dug and planted the earth of Israel.”
Habiby has spent most of his life as a second-class citizen of Israel, fighting as a Communist Party activist and Knesset member for the rights of Palestinian workers. The struggle on the economic front, the question of identity and problems of national self-determination are for him bound up together. The reluctance of Arab elites to acknowledge the accomplishments of Palestinian laborers, especially when they occur “inside,” betrays the bankruptcy of their programs and the absence of commitment to liberation. Habiby’s propensity to mock all sectors of the population, Arab and Jew, merchant and fida’i, young and old, is suspended for a tone of sincere respect for the patience and resolve of the Palestinian peasant and worker.
Habiby is an optimist: the dispossessed will never disappear. The social and economic contradictions of national oppression will continue to force confrontation between Palestinians and their Israeli overlords. Only the workers have experienced the evolution of oppression to enable them to free themselves. Of course, throughout the novel it is the Communist Party which draws the special interest of the Israeli police.
Saeed is an unusual blend of the bitter psychological analysis of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the tragicomic chronicle of Kurt Vonnegut’s wise fool in Slaughterhouse Five. Saeed is swept by events into an ugly world, and even into outer space, through little effort of his own. Saeed is also the quintessential “invisible” man of Israel, unseen and unable to see himself. Habiby has produced a rich literary accomplishment. His language and Saeed’s condition have universal appeal, and he uses them effectively to amplify and deepen the resonance of his political message concerning the contemporary Palestinian-Israeli conflict.